Do not use analogies.

Analogies are the very devil; always more harmful to the conversation than a clear enunciation of the issue itself.   When offered an analogy in an important conversation, I suggest that you refuse to engage with it and ask instead for a direct statement of the issue.  That said, I am seeing a common theme in ag responses to the instream flow requirements that sounds like this:

Adding more flow to the rivers isn’t giving us more fish.  The enviros are pursuing a hackneyed, mindless approach of always wanting more water, more water, when we have been adding more water and there aren’t even any more fish.

I am now seeing a new variant of:

“More water” is old science.  The new science says make sure there’s food and nesting opportunities for the fish.

(I bet the enviros wish they had some sort of word for a landscape with enough food and nesting opportunities for fish, and that they had some way to study this new concept.)

Despite my distaste for analogies, I am going to present one now.  My usual rule of thumb is that a crop takes about 3ft of water to finish a season.  Let’s say we have a very hot year and we care about salt flushing.  For our analogy, lets use a crop water requirement of 40acre-inches/acre-year.

% Flow on the San Joaquin River

Analogous irrigation amount    (acre-inches/acre-season)

Current conditions 20 8in
Potential low end of State Board instream requirement 30 12
Current State Board target for instream requirement 40 16
Potential high end of State Board instream requirement 50 20
What enviros hoped for 60 24
What science says is necessary 80 32
The full river, no diversions 100 40

With that as our reference, I would enjoy conversations like this:

GROWER: We are only getting 8 inches of water this summer!  We need more to grow crops!

OTPR:  It probably isn’t a water issue.  Have you thought about the fertilizer your crops need?   It might be that, and your single-minded focus on water has blinded you to the fertilizer issue.

GROWER:  No, seriously.  If you want crops, we’re going to need more than 8 inches of water.

OTPR:  Have you looked into predation?  Maybe rabbits are eating your crop.   That’s probably it.

GROWER:  We are going to need at least 32 inches, and really 40 inches to have healthy crops that do well year after year.

OTPR:  Honestly, this focus on water is all-consuming with you.  We’re going to need an all-of-the-above approach that honors both of the co-equal goals.

GROWER:  Yes!  We can look at the nutrients and we can control predation.  Yes, we will do that.  But fundamentally, crops require 36-40 inches water if you want to get something to eat when you’re done.

OTPR:  You keep bringing up the water, water, water.  This unhealthy focus has got to be hiding some ulterior motive, probably because you are hiding a huge water grab.  If you understood that we’re really nice, you wouldn’t want to take all our water.

GROWER:  What if you gave us 16 inches, but maybe 20 inches, and we do our best to grow the minimum crops that are most important to everyone?

OTPR:  SIXTEEN INCHES!  That’ll destroy civilization itself!  Holding out the possibility of 20 inches is extortion!  You need to go back to the drawing board and look at the fertilizer and rabbits again.  What is it going to take to get over this one-size-fits-all approach?



I am being petty, but not actually more petty than the op-eds and comments I read.  Biological systems require the water that they require.  Up until that threshold, the yields are small and unsustainable.

I am thrilled that the State Board is starting the public process of setting instream flows.  Those are the basis for healthy rivers and fisheries, possibly a backstop for water markets, and the start of a water rights regime that reflects the actual amount of water in California.  They are long overdue.  Great work, State Board.


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At least game out a few years first.

You guys know I’m not really going to return to that last post and write it up elegantly, right?

Honestly, the only decent use I can see for water markets is in-basin cap-and-trade systems for getting to sustainable groundwater use.  The locals will put cap-and-trade in place themselves in their Groundwater Sustainability Plans, because it will feel all “free-market” manly to them and obscures the real outcomes.  If it sucks after that, and growers realize that it forces the less-rich out of farming no less than power politics would have, I’ll have no sympathy, because self-inflicted. I’ve warned them as clearly as I can.

To be clear: the land retirement that is necessary to bring basins into sustainability will happen no matter what.  Growers in severely overdrafted basins should be thinking about their exit terms.  It may be that money from a cap-and-trade system is good enough, although these farmers didn’t think so afterward.  But if there are other, non-monetary exit terms that would make the transition feel better (possibly in addition to money), a water market of any kind won’t provide those.


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Chain of reasoning for my opposition to undirected water markets.

Good morning.  I finally figured out the full chain of my objection to enviro support for water markets this morning.  (Thanks to Faith Kearns for giving me the final piece I needed.)  I should write this up fully, but want to preview my chain of reasoning with you.  The outline gives a pretty decent look at my belief chain.  This and my three questions of water markets are among my better thought on the topic.  Here we go:

Based on the myth that ag water use is inefficient, therefore conserve and market.

  • It isn’t globally inefficient (basin efficiencies, there are other good reasons for good ag water management)
  • Ag doesn’t sell conserved water, it conserves and irrigates more land.
    • Buyers may not want the small intermittent increment from conserved water.
    • Buyers want constant predictable large volumes.
  • Growers sell their water or water rights when they are retiring land.
    • “Debt, death, and divorce” has become a sort of motto, Deane said, because those circumstances drive people to sell.

Water markets that aren’t carefully and intentionally designed to accomplish a purpose instead become siphons of water out of the environment or farm retirement programs.

However, water markets are a crappy way to retire land.

  • They leave a patchwork of stranded infrastructure behind, based on the arbitrary distribution of wealth at the beginning, not on what else the land could do nor the quality of the water delivery infrastructure.
  • don’t necessarily retire lands in a way that can lead to other good outcomes.
  • No less coercive than government planning and zoning, for the would-be holdouts.
  • In water market, only potential reimbursement for water sale (which = retired land) is money (which is nicely flexible).  But people might be more satisfied with other things, like the ability to stay on the land without farming, or keeping their community together, or taking care of their laborers.

If enviros really want to retire land, they should own that.  Should intentionally choose among a range of tools to retire land, of which water markets might be one, but so might zoning decisions, state-level decisions about water use, or large scale voluntary agreements.

  • It is cleaner and more honorable to be forthright about land retirement.
  • Farmers know that water markets retire lands anyway.
  • It allows for negotiations that are larger than money.  Water users who will not get irrigation water in the future can think about what retirement terms would work for them.  Doesn’t preclude buying people out.
  • It signals to growers to start the emotional work of grieving.  Without doing that, they’ll never be full participants in any transition.  Pretending that markets might not mean land retirement fudges that truth, allow both sides to pretend that grieving isn’t necessary.

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Some goals are more coequal.

You know, if you are trying to persuade the public that California should be implementing the “Coequal Goals” for water management, it doesn’t help to sound horrified at the prospect of leaving half the water in a river.  Well… maybe as much as half the water in the river, if keeping forty percent in the river doesn’t support a living river.

I never liked the Coequal Goals, because I thought they suggested that everyone could have what they want.  I’d prefer that Californians squarely face the inevitable retreat that climate change is bringing and make deliberate choices.  But Mr. Quinn trots out the Coequal Goals all the damn time.  He writes in this same op-ed:

Managing for the coequal goals means recognizing that the needs of our economy and our environment are both legitimate. It means taking a balanced approach to policy decisions and regulatory edicts to better meet those needs and reduce conflict.

But his very next sentence is code for “but don’t use too much water to restore rivers.”  Look, I get that there’s a lot of room for sophistication in combining environmental and economic uses of water.  I understand that it is more complicated than a fifty-fifty split.  I get that.  But there are two things in the two Coequal Goals: economy and environment.  His tone of shock and dismay that one of those things might get as much as half the water reveals a lot about how equal Mr. Quinn considers those two goals.  His strenuous argument that meaningful, codified instream flows are the wrong way to achieve living rivers means that one of those goals will always be at the mercy of the other.  That’s not very equal.

We know that ACWA represents districts, and I don’t personally care about the integrity of the doctrine of Coequal Goals.  But the way Coequal Goals is used in Mr. Quinn’s essay is ‘status quo favoring the economy, and dismay at the prospect that a river could get as much as half what it once was.’  We can use that as an instructive guide to ACWA’s future uses of “co-equal”.


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Nicely done, Sabalow, Kasler and Reese.

I cannot help but notice that all of the growers interviewed for this article on new wells in the San Joaquin Valley are servicing permanent crops (wine grapes, almonds).

During the crisis, Ralph Gutierrez, manager of Woodville’s utility district, said that because there wasn’t enough pressure in the town’s waterlines, he had no choice but to cite residents he caught spritzing lawns and landscaping with garden hoses.

He noted with irony that even as he was fining residents for their water use, he recently counted 60 new agricultural wells just outside town during one week of his daily commute.

But the response he got was icy when he suggested to farmers at a recent community meeting that they accept limits on groundwater pumping.

“If looks could kill, I would have been crucified,” said Gutierrez…

I have been suggesting a moratorium on planting new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels for years.  There would be the obvious immediate benefit of fewer new plantings in permanent crops and fewer new wells. But this example illustrates the real benefit.

It is evident that the growers are gaming the long lead times of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  Further, they have no buy-in for the Act, and by these quotes, are acting in their own short-term self-interest.  So far, they see no benefit to them in the types of local cooperative solutions that SGMA is counting on.  (I have never shared SGMA’s optimism about local governance and believe that deferring to local governance is a way for the State to skip out on its responsibilities.)  Further, a local manager here is overpowered by scorn when he suggests cooperative solutions. That local manager would be substantially helped out by having the State act as Bad Cop.

If the State genuinely wants SGMA to work, they must change the default.  It must suck worse for local growers to avoid and game SGMA than it sucks for them to get together to work on SGMA.  I think the moratorium I have proposed would do that, but I’m sure there are other possibilities out there.  This article shows that the existing default will not drive growers to sustainable groundwater management.



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All of ’em. I’ll speak for all the agencies right now.

The State Board is setting instream flows for the rivers of the northern San Joaquin Valley.  Their first estimate is that districts must leave about 40% of the unimpaired flow in the rivers.  That would be about 390,000af more water in the rivers than now; with our rule of thumb, we can estimate 130,000 acres of irrigated lands going out of production.  The locals are vowing to fight the impending decision.  Stockton East has alluded to extortion; I would like to turn that mention of extortion on its head.

Farmers, districts and cities in these riversheds, I bring you a message from the liberal environmentalist dictators.  Without any reservation, I speak to you on behalf of all the ignorant and power-hungry regulators.  I tell you this:  Right now, if you come up with a proposal to retire lands to meet these instream flows, we are extremely willing to be extorted.  Put together a proposal; ask for everything you want.  We would love to work out a good transition with you.

District managers!  Is there a lateral that never worked well for you?  A canal that has been losing capacity as subsidence changes the slope of the land?  Farmers!  Do you have land that never drained well?  Or is salting up?  Are you getting old, and not sure what to do with the farm?

Put together a plan to take some tens of acres that diverted from these rivers out of irrigated farming.  Ask for the State to fund conversion to intentional groundwater recharge or seasonal wetlands.  Ask for what you want.  Landowners, do you want to live on the grounds (not irrigating) until you are ready to leave?  Do you want your workers to be trained for the land’s new function?  Do you want your lands to be part of research with a university? Or a county park? Or converted to solar power generation?  Ask.  Any cooperative partnership to retire irrigated lands to help meet these instream flows would be met with open arms and probably grant funds.

I understand that the local districts have to bluster and fight these instream flow requirements.  I think it is good to have this fight.  If the laws protecting fish flows aren’t ever used or don’t hold up, there’s no point in having them.  But I predict these recommended instream flows will be upheld.

If so, local water districts, how do you want change to come to your district?  Suddenly, with no thought of what comes next?  Land prices crashing; bankruptcy determining who leaves and who stays? Or is there anything you want (recharge lands, habitat to grow some damn fish so the regulators don’t always try to solve fish problems with flow, land for carbon sequestration, solar power generation)?  Is there anything that would make this bearable for landowners (life tenancy, slow transition times, re-training their people)?  If there is, put together a plan and ask for everything you want.  You would be shocked at how willing the State would be to support an affirmative proposal to convert land to help meet these instream flows.


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Two annoying myths about “agriculture”.

Dr. Sunding’s most recent cost-benefit analysis of the AroundDeltaWaterGo has some exciting tidbits that you’ll be reading in the news soon.  I’d like to call out one small item to make a different point about rhetoric:


Look!  The AroundDeltaWaterGo helps some farmers and hurts others.  Choosing to build the ADWG is a choice to favor some regions of farming.  Farming in California is not a single thing with an On/Off switch.  A decline in acres farmed is not ‘the end of California agriculture’.  Retiring an objectively large amount of ag land (say 3 million acres) would still leave an objectively large amount of ag land (six million acres).  I would like to see some real pushback against the rhetoric that lumps all regions and types of farming, because that obscures the choices I wish we were making.

The last point I quoted above brings up another myth about California agriculture that I’d like to go away.  Why should California be devoting so many irreplaceable resources to feeding everyone else?  Some dude said at the Israel*-California Water Conference**:

To me this is really a profound opportunity to do something for the whole world,” Mr. Thebaut said.  “The population of the planet is projected to be 10 billion people by 2050, and consequently food security and international security is at stake.  The farms in California throughout the Imperial Valley, the Central Valley, and along the coast, really supply a minimum of one-third of the food supply of this country.  The country’s population is right now about 324 million people, and it’s projected to be 438 million by the mid-century, so consequently the responsibility of the agriculture industry to be able to meet these demands is profound.”

Why?  The Great Plains could be farmed for grains and vegetables instead of corn and soy.  We do not have to meet increasing demand for cheap meat (wine, nuts), even if people want it.  Why is it California’s responsibility to feed as many people as we are at the cost of our own rivers?  California also has endemic species and ecosystems that are real nice.  Why isn’t is it our responsibility to preserve those, when food can be produced elsewhere? This banal, unexamined rhetoric (farming is all or nothing, we should produce all possible food) doesn’t help make hard choices.


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